Asterix and the Soothsayer cover detail by Albert Uderzo
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Asterix v19: “Asterix and the Soothsayer”

Like village stories?  You’re going to love this one.  All these Gauls are crazy!

Asterix and the Soothsayer (volume 19) cover by Albert Uderzo
Writer: Rene Goscinny
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translators: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1972
Original Title: “Le Devin”

I Really, Really Liked This One

As much as I enjoy the trips to other countries and the endless bounty of fresh wordplay and historical references they provide, I love the stories set in the Village.  I love the cast of colorful characters with strong personalities I love to see them squabble and make up.  A good all-village brawl after a fish slapped to the face is the source of endless humor.

There’s something very comforting about it.

This feels like a very “small” book. It more or less entirely takes place in the village and its immediate forested surroundings.  There’s no grand adventure very far except to the island that’s a two minute row away out their back door.  There’s one new major character added to the mix, plus the usual flurry of Romans.

I just like how small it all feels.

Though, even with that level and depth of humor, Rene Goscinny’s script still manages to tell a story that relies on the stupidity of the human psyche as its spark.  Except, it wouldn’t have been all that stupid in 50 BC.  As Goscinny sets the stage, he explains that there’s a god for everything in Gaul and we already know that the Gauls have their own superstitions.

There are many gods in France, and this panel names a few of them

We even learn that Toutatis is the god of the tribe, which until now I had just kind of figured out for myself.  I used my rudimentary French to pull the word “tout” out of there, which mean “all,” and assumed he was the god of everyone, or the whole village, at least.  (The Romans have their Jupiter.)

At the same rate, you can easily read into this book lessons on modern life, too: Stop reading horoscopes.  Don’t be so gullible.  Don’t believe everything someone says just because it’s wildly optimistic and plays into your biggest dreams.  There’s no such things as oracles, soothsayers, psychic advisers, or Miss Cleo.  Follow the money.  Trust nobody.

But, mostly, it’s just a funny book about nitwit villagers falling for a scam and Asterix and Getafix finding a way to get them out of it.  Sounds a little like “The Mansions of the Gods,” doesn’t it?  It’s closer to the movie version of that one than the book.  In the movie, they all move out of the village and into the mansions, but in the book, they stay in the village and enjoy the tourism revenue.

In this book, things get so bad with the “con” that the village moves out, leaving Asterix and Obelix to defend the empty shell of their home.  It’s something of a briefly sad and dramatic moment.

Beware the Soothsayer

The Soothsayer meets the Villagers

In this story, a Soothsayer names Prolix arrives at the village and quickly earns the attention of everyone in the village — except Asterix.  The rest are easily taken in by his positive outlook for their futures, as well as his increasing demands for food, drink, and bedding.

Asterix finds himself at odds with the entire village, including Obelix. He can’t believe that they’d all fall for this most classic of scams: a wandering stranger who claims to be able to predict the future, and then tells you exactly what you want to hear in exchange for a small offering.

The Soothsayer couldn’t possible be more obvious.  The villagers are so excited to hear what he has to say that they lead him directly into it.  But when one or two coincidences or inevitabilities come true, the village falls more into his grasp even though the proof of his powers is the weakest.

Enter the Romans

Prolix the Soothsayer tries to convince the Roman leader that he's not a soothsayer

The Romans capture the Soothsayer, and things get really crazy.  Soothsayers are to be arrested on sight, per Caesar’s wishes.  Why?  They’re a security threat, as warned of by the Roman auguries.  (Auguries predict the future by reading birds.  You can see how this makes so much more sense than believing a Soothsayer.)

So Prolix recants his powers, but the leader of the Roman camp wants to believe his positive predictions of gaining Caesar status, so Prolix has to play both sides of his own act. You’d be surprised how many common phrases can be made to sound so predictive of events.   Prolix falls prey to all of them.

Meanwhile, the Roman second-in-command wants to arrest Prolix immediately and looks for any bit of proof that he’s a soothsayer, so he can take him in.

Prolix is in an uncomfortable spot, and Rene Goscinny’s script turns the screws on him.  Every little thing Prolix says proves one side or the other right.  They fight over him constantly, and he’s just trying to stay alive, at this point.  He’ll promise them or say anything, but it’s still not good enough.

No wonder why he agrees to help the Romans trick the Gauls into leaving their village….

Prolix promises the Romans he can trick the Gauls

Prolix is so obvious in his ploys that you almost want to root for him to fool more people. You want to see how far he can go and what he can get away with.  He’s one of the more likable villains in the series.  His mental torture at the hands of the Romans, in particular, is hilarious and squirm-worthy, all at the same time. I was almost sorry to see him go at the end of the tale, though things wound up even worse for the odious Roman leader who tried to use him.

A Quick History Lesson

After I read this book, I coincidentally heard about the true story of the Battle of Drepana (249 B.C.), in which a Roman fleet of ships went after the Carthaginians that held part of Sicily along the coastline.

They started off on a bad footing. They lost the element of surprise.  Their line of ships was out of formation.  It was a bit of a hot mess.

But, as per Roman custom, before starting any kind of attack, they did what any smart military organization would do: They consulted the sacred chickens.

No, you didn’t misread that. Here, I’ll go slower:

They. Consulted. The. Sacred. Chickens.

Don’t worry, they brought sacred chickens with them on the boat for just such an event.  The test was to lay out some grain in front of the chickens.  If they ate the grain, it was a sign that the gods approved the battle.

The chickens did not eat the grain.

In a shocking break with tradition, the military leader threw the chickens overboard with the awesome quote, “Let them drink, since they don’t wish to eat.”

Then, the Romans attacked the Carthaginians.

The Carthaginians routed the Romans, and sank almost all their ships.

Those chickens were not fooling around.

P.S.  The leader in charge of the battle survived.  He returned to Rome, where he was convicted and sent into exile not for losing the battle and all those ships and troops, but for the sacrilege of throwing the chicken overboard.

That’ll teach ’em!

(And don’t forget the story of Julius Caesar and his run-in with the pirates who kidnapped him and came to regret it…)

Now, back to Asterix:

A Numbers Game

When Prolix arrives at the Roman camp, they test him to see if he can truly predict the future.  Voluptuous Arteriosclerosis brings out a pair of dice, with numbers in Roman numerals, of course, instead of pips.

He asks the Soothsayer to predict what he’s going to roll next.  The Soothsayer, trying hard to prove he’s really a charlatan, says that the dice will roll a 7.

Prolix chooses the wrong number on a roll of the dice

That’s his biggest mistake of the book.  The most common roll of any pair of six-sided dice is 7.  That’s the last number he should have chosen.  He should have picked 2 or 12, which can only be rolled with one combination each (I and I or VI and VI).

So not only is he a charlatan and a thief, but he’s also bad at math.

He’s not the biggest dummy, though.  That award goes to Arteriosclerosis’ next in command, Optione, who in a rage asks Prolix to predict another roll of the dice:

Romans can't count

Of course, it’s impossible to roll two six-sided dice and get a 1.

These Romans are crazy!

Parenthesis: A Storytelling Technique

In the past, we’ve had format shifts in the book where a war is charted out instead of shown.  We’ve seen sales brochures for The Mansions of the Gods.  In this book, we get a parenthetical.  I love this page, which is an explanation of the kinds of charlatans Prolix exemplifies.

Asterix and the Soothsayer features an entire page that's a parenthetical, so Uderzo includes the parentheses

Or, as the opening caption box says,

A parenthesis which is necessary for a brief explanation of soothsayers, oracles, prophets, augurs, haruspices and other interpreters of the Sibylline books….

The pirates are sunk, Caesar knows no fear from Brutus, and one oracle even predict Albert Uderzo’s cottage house. (You can see a picture of it at Getty Images.)

Albert Uderzo drew his own house into the book

It does not include the story of The Battle of Drepana, sadly.

The entire page is background material, outside of the scope of the main story. It’s pure exposition. That’s what parentheses are for, but Goscinny and Uderzo make it explicit here in a literal way I’ve never seen any other creators attempt.  It deserves a special mention for that.

Best Name in the Book

Bulbus Crocus makes me laugh.  I picture him, just from the name alone, as being a guy with a viciously large nose, for some reason.

Voluptuous Arteriosclerosis

I’m going with Voluptuous Arteriosclerosis, though, since I love the long and unwieldy names that are a big reach.  They’re the kinds of names so painful to type that I’d sooner cut and paste the first instance than ever have to type it again and fight the spellchecker every click of the keyboard.

Continuity

Getafix doesn’t appear in the first two thirds of this book for the simple reason that his presence would have killed any chance of this plot happening.  

The Druids in the days of the Gauls were the wise men.  Getafix would know instantly what the Soothsayer was up to and would stop everything before it happened.  No villager would be sneaking into the woods to feed Prolix for the good news of his predictions.

How did Goscinny ditch him?  He sent Getafix away to the annual Druid’s Conference, as last seen in volume 3, “Asterix and the Goths.”  Again, we shouldn’t think this hard about things.  We know that can be dangerous.  Just like we shouldn’t ask why Asterix and Obelix didn’t go with him for protection this time.

Druid Getafix returns from his Druid Conference

Once again, he’s won the big prize at the conference.  He never says that it’s the second one he’s won, or that he’s won two in a row now.  It’s purposefully left vague, because there would have to be more than one year between volume 3 and volume 19. Too much stuff happens, with far too much traveling.

Recommended?

Asterix and the Soothsayer (volume 19) cover by Albert Uderzo

Yes, but do try to pick up the 2010 edition of the book in this case.  Every page of the 2004 edition has issues. It’s mostly in the black lines, where they disappear when they get thinner.  I know I’ve said it before, but it’s still true in this case: This is the worst reprinting yet.

That said, I love this book. I love the simplicity and the smallness of the story.  I love every moment of the Soothsayer caught in the Roman camp and completely unable to use logic to squirm his way out of it.

Asterix re-enacts a Rembrandt painting

As simple as the set-up is, Goscinny and Uderzo still pack in an impressive number of allusions (Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolas Tulp“, for example, and it’s dead-on) and plenty of wordplay along the way. I could go on listing a heap more of them, but you’re better off just reading the book with that time, instead.

— 2018.051 —

Next Book!

Volume 20 is next, “Asterix in Corsica.”  It’s the last volume to be serialized through Pilote Magazine.  It’ll be interesting to see in volume 21 if there’s any noticeable difference in storytelling styles.

Just to tease you further, my review of “Corsica” will appear in two weeks.  While there won’t be an album review next week, keep an eye out for another Asterix thought piece.  It fits in the same family as “The Druid Getafix: A Bus Factor of 1” — taking the series too seriously, asking unanswered questions, and supporting it with lots of examples from previous volumes.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

21 Comments

  1. Superb post Augie! I’ve read this one so many times and never noticed that joke about ‘I to XII’ before, or the allusion to Rembrandt.
    Asterix and the Soothsayer is a magnificent book and shows both Goscinny and Uderzo’s mastery of character and character studies. See how the Soothsayer both looks like the other Gauls and yet doesn’t at the same time, clearly marking him out as an outsider.
    That whole scene where he has to prove he can’t tell the future is absolutely crazy but makes sense from the point of view of the characters in the way that the Normans’s silly obsession with flying doesn’t work in Asterix and the Normans. Prolix, the Soothsayer, is one of the very best ‘guest stars’ of the Asterix series.
    The pun award in this case is clearly one for Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. The centurion is called ‘Caius Faipalgugus’ in the original French.

    1. I think, aside from Julius Caesar, Prolix is now officially my favorite bad guy/guest star ever. I compared this book to Monty Python in another comment, but part of me wonders how much of it feels more like Marx Bros. it’s got the word play, the slow burn, etc. So much humor came out of that vaudeville and early cinema days….

      “Caius Faipalgugus”?!? Insert GIF of me blinking. Can someone explain that name to me? I’m sure it’s an excellent French pun somehow….

      1. Yes it is. Faipalgugus = fais pas le Gugusse = don’t be a clown. Gugusse is short for Auguste, the circus’s comic relief often paired to a white clown who is the straight man of the jokes.

  2. Soothsayer is indeed mostly devoid of deep societal reference, if you don’t count the beginning of the horoscope craze in women’s magazines, which I believe, is still somewhat in effect today. Just a great story based on exploiting the failings of human nature. Who said Goscinny wasn’t a great teacher.
    The only (small) topical bit that I can see is in the parenthesis that you show, the picture at the bottom is the Esso Tower, then-recently finished in the then-new business area of La Défense, north of Paris. I tried to locate of more recent pic of it but apparently it was destroyed about 25 years ago to be replaced by something bigger. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (I learned this one and many others from Asterix of course).
    This one has so many untranslatable puns, like referencing our favourite brand of mustard, that I’m happy to see that our favourite Brit team is making up for it with their own.
    Gauls and Romans being pagans, it makes perfect sense that their faith would be exploited by greedy bastards; we don’t really have televangelists here but Goscinny being knowledgeable of the US, it’s not a big stretch to assume he was aware of the trend. Btw, Toutatis is a real celtic god, albeit with a slightly different spelling, some traces of it have been found in the Arverne region:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toutatis
    Haven’t I read somewhere that Prolix was physically based on James Coburn? Not sure, maybe I’m misremembering.

      1. That’s interesting and a little odd. The physical similarity is clearly there, once pointed out. I don’t think I’d have seen it otherwise mind, not because its poorly executed, rather it seems such an odd choice based on the character of Prolix. Most of the caricatures in Asterix, at least the one’s I’ve spotted (!??!) are based as much on character traits or at least percieved character traits?

        Mind maybe Uderzo is just a big fan of Coburn like that other famous fan who throws his likeness into characters Carlos Ezquerra!

        1. He does? I know about Judge Dredd being Clint Eastwood, but that’s the only likeness I know from Ezquerra.

          1. Yeah Carlos used Coburn as the model for Jimmy DiGriz in the Stainless Steel Rat adaptions, Battle character Major Eazy AND Cursed Earth Koburn from the Judge Dredd Megazine series (with the more obvious name reference!). There probably others but they are the ones that come straight to mind.

  3. This book is way better than I remembered and is currently sitting in 6th place with 4.5/5.

    It started off okay, but really kicked in when the Soothsayer got caught by the Romans and completely lost control of the situation.

    Possibly my favourite character is the second in command – who seems so very British to me in his body language, I can’t imagine him being created by French people. I chuckled out loud every time he said “Shall I lock him up then”.

    1. The whole thing felt very Monty Python to me in some ways, and perhaps the second-in-command most of all. I’m hearing the same voice as you there, for sure. =)

      1. Ha – yeah. I could easily see his character played by John Cleese teaching his men to attack someone with a grape.

  4. In modern times I’ve always considered this my favourite and have to say this reading has done nothing to dampen that enthusiam. There’s so much to love. Its just wonderfully observed, character driven and while I agree with JC there isn’t the same level of social commentry its a great look at the human condition. The fact that the story is small allows it all the room to move and breathe it needs and I adore the way it develops and twists. The soothsayer from his beautifully realised and so dramatic entrance, all darkeness and poses and up shoots becoming increasing diminished and frantic and he’s the star of the show. So ably supported by two of my favourite Romans and of course our villagers who once again prove to be their own worse enemies.

    It also really plays to Uderzo’s strenghts, big dramatic entrances all cast against dark storms, the scheeming face of Arteriosclerosus, the tangible desperation of Prolix, the gloriously acting of all the characters spurred on by magnificent meladrama the story generates. Just perfect.

    And the funny, so much funny. I think pound for pound this one makes me laugh out loud the most.

    Its probably not perfect, its pretty atypical as a tale and that I think is what makes it stand out on my mind and embrace it all the more. Strangely I’m going to contradict myself as well, on this reading the theme of gullibility and people ability to embrace nonsense if its what they think they want to hear and how that creates division and can even drive folks from the place they belong plays all the more powerfully today than ever before. Hey I’m British and in the next edition here they could change the name of the Soothsayer to Boris! No social commentry – I was a fool!

    Anyway clearly as I’ve said before the real reason I rate this so heighty are those small subjective things its impossible to identify when things are this good. Either way Soothsayer gets a mighty

    14 /10

    If anything beats this one I’ll be well impressed!

    Oh it does have one weakness, its not great for names. I actually have a soft spot for Bulbus Crocus, if only ‘cos I wonder if they saw the flower design on his top and just cranked it in there!

  5. This is another one at the top of the list, with, for me, some laugh out loud moments, including Caius Faitpalgugus, one of my favorite names. Too bad they didn’t go with Caius Dontbeadufus, LOL. And what does the chief’s wife call him in English, when she tries to keep Asterix and Obelix from going into the forest? Piglet? I hope so! That’s one of my favorite scenes with the chief in the entire series. Also, the way the optione talks (FYI, that’s a military rank, not his name): in French he messes up his grammatical tenses all the time with very funny results.

    1. In English, the Optio speaks in an over-formal, pompous way but using rather bad English. British comedy films and TV of the 1950s-1970s parodied policemen and army sergeants speaking this way. The Optio’s mangled English in his first proper speech (“On proceeding on patrol for which you gave the orders to proceed with, we found this ‘ere individual in a clearing…”) is a fine example.

      1. Yeah. And his body language fits that perfectly. That’s probably a big part of why he seems so British to me.

  6. Asterix and the Soothsayer was always one of my favourites. As a child I was very fond of the ‘horror movie’ atmosphere of the opening sequence, and the comedy throughout the book. The way Prolix plays on the gullibility of the villagers is slightly reminiscent of how the Gauls were manipulated in Asterix and the Roman Agent. Also, as others have said, the whole battle of wits between the soothsayer, the centurion and the optio is very well handled.
    Re print quality, I don’t know the various editions that you refer to, but the copy I have, a British paperback from the late 1970s, has some terrible printing, with the black lines faded away to nothing in places.

    1. Yup, sounds like the same awful print quality from the 2004 editions. The remastering in 2010 “fixed” it all (that’s where the images in this review came from), but I do wonder sometimes how much came from the original art and how much was added in “restoration.”

  7. Also, Prolix the Soothsayer is a caricature of James Coburn the famous American actor best known for his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor role in the 1998 film Affliction. And was in various classic movies such as: The Magnificent 7 (1960), The Great Escape (1963), Charade (1963), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), Midway (1976), Captain Dundee (1965), Our Man Flint (1966), In Like Flint (1967), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Cross of Iron (1979), A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Monster’s Inc. (2001), The Nutty Professor re-make with Eddie Murphy from 1996 and many other films and TV shows.